We are already more than halfway through January and I am still managing to stick heroically to my new year’s resolution. This is to keep smoking throughout 2012 — with a particularly large intake of nicotine and tar planned for the dreaded Olympic Games when everyone will be banging on about the glories of physical fitness.
There will be no end of temptations to quit, of course. I was at a wonderful dinner party over the festive period, held, romantically, in a candlelit, lovingly restored vintage railway carriage. When I announced I was going to nip outside for a fag, the hostess looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and horror, as if I had proposed shooting up heroin or molesting a young child.
Over the years, I have packed in smoking on several occasions, only to pile on the pounds as I got hooked on confectionery instead, most notably liquorice, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and clotted-cream fudge. Indeed just writing those words makes me want to rush out to the sweetshop. Happily I can have a fag instead and I cherish the moment at Glastonbury in 2009 when I was so elated by Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant performance that I knew I either had to have a fag or a drink or I’d explode.
I have been puffing away contentedly ever since, feeling calmer, happier and childishly delighted to be cocking a snook at the busybodies and the naysayers who delight in telling us how to live our lives. Being a smoker these days is a bit like being an outlaw and I get a childish, Just William-like kick out of it, just as I did when smoking in the woods with friends at Charterhouse.
My other new year’s resolution, apart from trying to be kinder and not to grumble so much, is to see more live music, both classical and pop. One act I am determined to catch, should he be touring anywhere even remotely accessible, is Roy Wood. Regular readers may remember that I mentioned this founder member of the Move, the Electric Light Orchestra and Wizzard in my last column with reference to his enduring and irresistible festive hit ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’, one of the very few yuletide smashes that never stales with repetition. I said then that he seemed to have disappeared without trace, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Michael Henderson of this parish whizzed over an email saying Wood was alive and well and living in a village in the Peak District, and almost simultaneously the great man released a double CD retrospective of his work, Music Book. It was glowingly reviewed in the music press, which compared his work to both Phil Spector and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
This doesn’t strike me as being hyperbolical. Hidden behind all the preposterous glam rock make-up, the wild, dyed hair and the facial fungus (the public mask I have always suspected of a rather shy man), Wood always had a wonderful gift for pop melody, while many of his records feature huge ensembles that throw in everything including the kitchen sink to create a Spector-like wall of sound.
On this collection the hits just keep on coming, though not always in the versions you might expect. The Move’s big hit ‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’ is performed in a cover version by Status Quo, ‘Flowers in the Rain’ by Nancy Sinatra, while ‘California Man’ is given a rollicking rendition by Roy Wood and his Rock & Roll Big Band which makes one even more impatient to see the great man in concert.
In interviews promoting the new collection, Wood revealed that he doesn’t receive royalties for many of his songs and that the release of several of his recordings was delayed for years, thanks to the malignity of Don Arden, the most notorious manager in the history of British popular music.
His acts included the Move, the Electric Light Orchestra, the Small Faces and Black Sabbath. When he died in 2007, the Telegraph obituary gave a vivid account of his modus operandi which was ‘alleged to include beatings, knee-capping, threats of defenestration and the frequent deployment of muscular assistants, sometimes with firearms’.
Arden apparently enjoyed playing up to his image as a ruthless operator. He wore broad-lapelled gangster suits and hung a picture of himself impersonating Edward G. Robinson on his office wall. Late in life the man once known as ‘the Al Capone of Pop’ insisted that he had never actually killed anyone but was proud of his capacity to have inspired fear and terror ‘in such a way that the people I scare are going to have to keep looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives’.
The fact that Wood produced so much superb and joyous music while being managed by such a monster makes one applaud his achievements all the more.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.